Northport During Prohibition: When the discourse was wet vs. dry

Images courtesy of the Northport Historical Society.

Editor’s note: The Northport Historical Society’s latest pop-up exhibit, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the end of prohibition, opened this past weekend. The exhibit features a display of artifacts and fashions from the 1920s along with information about the effects of prohibition in Northport, and is running in tandem with a sold-out Prohibition Pub Crawl Down Main Street, a popular event in which participants visit Main Street’s storied bars and learn how former Northporters coped with staying “dry.” Missed getting in on the first pub crawl? No worries, the next one has been scheduled for Saturday, May 20; register here. Until then, read the article below by the museum’s education coordinator, Carol Taylor.

The most valuable tenet of a working democracy is the freedom to debate, both publicly and privately. Once our colonial patriots managed to pen our Constitution, the guarantees of our First Amendment have withstood the test of time. With hiccups along the way, what’s unique to “We the People” is that each generation has had its emotional debates. One such social debate involved the 1919 outlawing of “intoxicating liquors” known as prohibition. It lasted for thirteen years and fueled continuous, intense debate. Prohibition buoyed political careers and created a violent, organized crime underworld.

The anti-liquor Temperance Movement germinated in the 1820s. The sentiment grew in popularity during the Civil War in the 1860s. Bit by bit, a tenacious set of reformers and lawmakers influenced the nation. During WWI, in 1917, Congress inserted language into an agricultural bill to ban the sale of liquor to soldiers. Then, in 1919 the Anti-Saloon League garnered enough influence that Congress passed the 18th Amendment, known as the Volstead Act (named after the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee).

The anti-liquor discourse targeted immigrants. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 pushed between two to three million people out of Ireland. Approximately 1.5 million emigrated to the United States. Between 1884 and 1920, seven million Italians immigrated to the United States, whose pull was prosperity. Between 1800 and 1919 more than seven million Germans immigrated to the USA, again looking for a more prosperous life. The Irish, Italian and German shared cultural similarities that included their Catholic religion and their alcohol consumption. These immigrants were blamed for a host of societal ills from disease to employment poaching to crime. The Klu Klux Clan’s notorious cross burning in the north terrorized Catholic immigrants. By banning any liquid that contained more than 2.75% alcohol, the Temperance Movement hoped to roll up the USA welcome mat.

The Volstead Act successfully imposed sanctions against the gray market of rum running. It empowered the Coast Guard with the right to board boats and seize contraband. Yet the authorities seemed to be one step behind an ever-resourceful crime syndicate. Corrupt law enforcement further complicated success. Liquor was imported from neighboring Canada and the Virgin Islands. The illegal “hooch” flooded the coasts of the United States creating a supply chain that used codes, radios, trucks, cars, boats and tunnels.

Well-paying rum running employed thousands and infiltrated every community; Long Island with its coastal expanse, was home to much rum running. Enterprising taverns, called “Blind Tigers” and “Speakeasies,” offered liquor to its “private club” patrons. The “cocktail” emerged as a clever concoction to flavor and disguise hootch. Clearly, where there was a will to drink, folks found a way.

This spring, the Northport Historical Society and Museum will celebrate the repeal of Prohibition with a Prohibition Pub Crawl Down Main Street. Join us as we share the fascinating history of Prohibition, visit Main Street’s storied bars and learn how our predecessors coped with staying “dry.”

View Northport During Prohibition Thursday through Sunday, from 1 to 4:30pm. The Northport Historical Society is located at 215 Main Street in Northport.